The 2008 campaign phrase "hope and change" will haunt future histories of the Obama presidency.
Many Americans voted Barack Obama into the White House for that reason alone. That reason is gone. The notion that this president would unify the nation by allowing people to summon their better spirits, as he promised, faded fast.
Even Mr. Obama's supporters see now that his operating method wasn't unification, but political and social division. Support for the president among the independents who gave him 52% of their vote in 2008 has fallen into the 30s.
Dividing the nation in his first term so that some Americans would vote in anger against his opposition was clearly the game plan from the start. He repeatedly scapegoated "the wealthiest" and the "1 percent." In 2012 when House Republicans published their deficit-reduction proposals, Mr. Obama dismissed the document as "laughable," "social Darwinism" and "antithetical to our entire history."
After four years of the politics of divide-and-conquer, Mr. Obama had stirred sufficient resentment in his political base to win a second term. What he has produced entering the sixth year of his presidency is a nation in a state of disunion.
The pollsters at Gallup wrote last week that Mr. "Obama is on course to have the most politically polarized approval ratings of any president." Segments of the U.S. population see themselves not just in disagreement with the Obama administration, but as the target of its policies.
This includes not only the famous 1%, but also the upper-middle class, Southern states, charter schools, politically active conservatives, private businesses, the Catholic church, electric utilities, doctors driven out of ObamaCare's health networks and those famous partisans, the Little Sisters of the Poor.
All have been vilified, investigated, audited or sued by the president himself, Eric Holder's Justice Department, the National Labor Relations Board, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency and, not least, the Internal Revenue Service. Last year's most remarkable polling number from Gallup said in December that 72% of Americans regard big government as the greatest threat to the U.S. They got the message.
Even ObamaCare has contributed. The law's rules pit the healthy against the unhealthy by forcing them to pay higher premiums to subsidize the unhealthy. Catholics, some of whom might have supported ObamaCare, see their hospitals as singled out for retribution by their government.
The administration's supporters dismiss complaints about the in-your-face tenor of the Obama presidency as conservative sour grapes. "We won," they say, "get over it." OK, you won, but what have you done with it? Where's the upside?
The slow fade of hope is revealed in last week's Fox News poll, with 74% saying the country feels as if it's still in a recession, no matter that the real one ended in early 2009. It's hard to pretend hope is coming when, five years after the 2008 election, December's monthly jobs report said 347,000 Americans have given up looking for work. That's your real income inequality—the legions of chronically unemployed Americans who now have no earned income whatsoever.
In his speech, Mr. Obama pitched the causes of weak employment back "more than three decades." This 30-year-old problem has three major policy solutions available to him in 2014: tax reform, pending free-trade legislation and immigration reform. All require doing business with the other party in Congress. He can't, and by personal disposition doesn't want to. The speech made that clear.
Wonder Land columnist Dan Henninger responds to Barack Obama's fifth State of the Union address. Photos: Getty Images
Instead, Mr. Obama said his overdue promise of change is going to roll in on a cascade of unilateral executive orders and directives from his regulatory bureaucracies. (This includes sentencing Joe Biden to reforming all the federal job-training programs, another 30-year failure.)
Progressives justify coerced public policy with their belief that what they are doing is good. Setting aside several hundred years of unhappy world history with this notion, a glitch always occurs in the U.S.: Because the Founding Fathers designed an arduous system for producing progress, the far left has never been able to put its most purebred ideas consistently across the legislative goal line. Too many citizens resist. One might say the same of the far right, but they're not running anything just now. In frustration—and Mr. Obama is nothing if not frustrated—the White House is defaulting, as the left does everywhere, to direct executive action. We are at the dawn of the Unilateral Presidency.
How can this be good, if the price is more national disunion than we have now? Disunion is a dangerous political virus that sends a nation as complex as the U.S. toward a state of permanent, embittered opposition, which can be difficult for mere politicians to set right. We're about there.
Barack Obama could have allowed some accommodation to decompress the discord and political tension. For example, he could have lifted the economy with a bipartisan cut in the corporate tax rate in his first term. Instead, he raised taxes on "the wealthiest," and defined them as people with before-tax incomes above $200,000. Instead, the IRS audited his opponents. Get over it? Not anytime soon.
A Princeton PhD, was a U.S. diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Central/Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. After leaving the State Department in order to express opposition to the planned invasion of Iraq, he taught courses at Georgetown University pertaining to the tension between propaganda and public diplomacy. For many years he shared ideas on the theme "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" with Eurasian/European delegates participating in the "Open World" program.
Brown’s articles have appeared in numerous publications. A recent piece is “Janus-Faced Public Diplomacy: Creel and Lippmann During the Great War” (published in Nontraditional U.S. Public Diplomacy: Past, Present, and Future; now online).
He is the author (with S. Grant) of The Russian Empire and the USSR: A Guide to Manuscripts and Archival Materials in the United States (also online). In the past century, he served as an editor/translator of a joint U.S.-Soviet publication, The Establishment of Russian-American Relations, 1765-1815.